ESSAY- Filling the gap: Medicare keeps oldsters solvent

Some people nervously paced the room, others had magazines open on their laps as they stared past the pages, lost in thought. I sat in the corner, gnawing on my thumbnail and scanning the headlines in The Washington Post. What we all had in common was the fact that we were family members of people who were undergoing surgery at the University of Virginia Hospital.

And let me tell you, the surgery waiting room is a mighty tense place. Every few minutes, a phone at the front desk rings, and a hospital volunteer calls out the name of a patient. The patient's relative approaches the desk and is handed a telephone receiver, knowing that on the other end is the surgeon who has just left the operating room, and has news about the loved one.

You'd think you'd be able to tell whether the news was good or bad, just by watching the person's reaction. The balding guy in the wrinkled khakis– I bet he slept in those clothes– is he hearing, "We got it all, she's doing just fine," or "I'm sorry, there was nothing we could do"? I couldn't tell. He just listened, nodding, then handed the receiver back to the volunteer and hurried out of the room.

This happened a few weeks ago, in late September, after I'd kissed my mother's forehead as she lay on a gurney (already halfway to anesthetized oblivion) just before they rolled her away to the operating room.  

Having retreated to the waiting area, I was determined to make use of the time by catching up on election news in the Post, but it was hopeless. Unable to concentrate, I watched the people around me. There were a few dozen of us, nervously thumbing through magazines, tapping our feet, looking up expectantly whenever another family was called to the phone to speak with a surgeon.

When it comes to taking care of people you love, there's a lot to worry about. Is this surgeon all he's cracked up to be? Is this the best hospital for this particular illness? How are we going to pay for all this? As I waited for news from her surgeon, it was an enormous comfort to know that my mother is covered by Medicare.  

Between that and a "medigap" policy, Mum is all set: She's getting help from a fine neurosurgeon, with the knowledge that her treatment will not result in a massive debt that could bankrupt her.

I look around the room and wonder how it will affect these families if Republicans are successful in their efforts to eliminate government social programs. Medicare and Social Security, the programs that have the greatest impact on my family, have a long history of keeping the middle-class elderly from becoming the indigent elderly.

At the beginning of this year, Congress passed– and President Bush signed– a measure that will strip $39 billion from programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps over the next five years.

Now, I'm all for encouraging people to take responsibility for themselves, but as a community, don't we also bear some responsibility for one another?

Surely the party that emphasizes family values would include, among those values, helping families to get decent care for their loved ones in times of sickness and injury. Without Medicare, I cannot imagine how our family could have afforded neurosurgery for my mother, not to mention four days of hospitalization and weeks of physical therapy.

Mum's surgery was a success, thanks to excellent medical care made affordable by this particular government social program, and she's making steady progress toward becoming her former, healthy self.

I'm grateful to live in a country where we still recognize– whether we're thrown together in the surgery waiting room or pacing and fidgeting in our own homes– that we're all in this together.

Free Union free spirit Janis Jaquith often reads her essays on Virginia public radio stations.